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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XI. The Prosody of the Eighteenth Century

§ 6. Edward Bysshe’s Art of Poetry

In 1702, there appeared, written or compiled by an obscure person by name Edward Bysshe, an Art of Poetry, which (after a custom set on the continent for some considerable time past and already followed here by Joshua Poole) consisted principally of a riming dictionary and an anthology of passages containing similes and so forth. The book became popular and was often reprinted (at first with considerable additions) during the century. The bulk of it has long been mere waste-paper; indeed, a riming dictionary may be said to be, in itself, almost the greatest achieved, if not the greatest possible, insult to the human understanding. But its brief introduction, “Rules for Making English Verses,” is one of the two or three most important points de repère of the whole subject; though, even at the present day, and even by serious students of prosody, that importance is sometimes denied and oftener belittled. It has even been said that Bysshe merely represents “the traditional view”; to which it can only be replied that exhaustive examination of every previous treatment of the subject has failed to discover any expressed tradition of the kind or any sign that such tradition had “materialised itself” to anybody outside an extremely variable practice.

What Bysshe does is to formulate, with extraordinary fidelity, a system of versification to which the practice of the foregoing century had certainly been more and more tending, but which had never been expressed in theory before. His own principle is strictly syllabic. There are no feet in English—merely a certain number of syllables. Moreover, he would preferentially admit only verses of ten (with an extra one for double rimes), eight and seven; though he does not absolutely exclude others. These syllables, in a heroic, must be arranged so that there is a pause at the fourth, fifth or sixth, and a strong accent on the second, fourth and sixth. So absolutely devoted is he to syllables and accents that he only approaches verses of triple (dactylic or anapaestic) rime (while he uses none of these terms), by the singularly roundabout way of describing them as “verses of nine or seven syllables with the accent on the last,” and dismisses them as “low,” “burlesque” and “disagreeable,” unless they occur in “compositions for music.” He is, of course, a severe advocate of elision: the “e” of the article must always be cut off before a vowel; “violet” is, or may be, “vi’let.” But he disapproves of the seventeenth century practice of eliding such vowels as the “y” of “by.” As for stanzas of intermixed rime (i.e. Spenserian, rime royal, etc.), “they are now wholly laid aside” in longer poems.